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Joe Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda faces a big test this week as opposing factions within his own party clash over how to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a much larger $3.5tn spending package.
As the administration is engulfed in the chaos in Afghanistan, the House of Representatives returns from its summer recess early to consider the president’s spending plans, including a multitrillion-dollar budget.
Democratic congressional leaders and the White House are trying to pass the massive budget and a $1tn bipartisan infrastructure package in tandem to satisfy both the progressive and moderate wings of the party. Yet the tactic has exposed sharp rifts among Democrats — and raised the possibility that neither the budget nor the infrastructure bill will make it over the line.
The Senate this month passed the infrastructure package, which will provide hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade America’s crumbling transport systems in a rare bipartisan vote, with 19 Republicans voting alongside all 50 Senate Democrats.
But it needs to pass the House and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker in the chamber, has said she intends to consider the budget proposal before turning to infrastructure.
Unlike the infrastructure bill, the budget plan is being pushed through using a procedure called reconciliation, which allows Senate Democrats to bypass the 60-vote filibuster threshold and go it alone, without the support of Republicans.
The budget passed the Senate earlier this month and contains many of the top pledges from Biden’s 2020 election campaign, including an expansion of Medicare and extra funding to battle climate change.
Moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema voted in favour of the resolution but said they would not sign up to a final package with such a high price tag.
Pelosi sought to prioritise the budget resolution to satisfy progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who say the infrastructure package does not go far enough and want assurances that the $3.5tn budget plan will not be dramatically scaled back.
But in recent days at least nine moderate House members have expressed concerns about the cost of the budget and insisted that they should vote on the infrastructure bill first. The lawmakers, including Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Jared Golden of Maine, have said they will not vote in favour of the budget resolution if they do not get their way. Their threats carry weight given Democrats control the House by a margin of just eight votes — and Republicans are unlikely to sign on to the budget plans.
“We have the votes to pass this legislation right now, which is why I believe we should first vote immediately on the bipartisan infrastructure package, send it to the president’s desk, and then quickly consider the budget resolution, which I plan to support,” said Gottheimer on Saturday morning. “We need to get people to work and shovels in the ground.”
Golden wrote on Twitter: “The time for better roads, bridges, and broadband isn’t after months of more Washington infighting: it’s right now.”
One of the House progressives, Ro Khanna, on Sunday urged his fellow lawmakers not to block a vote: “A vote against the Biden agenda this week is not only a slap in the face to the president, it will obstruct any shot at adopting the policies that define us as Democrats.”
Pelosi last week appeared to offer a solution, asking lawmakers to draw up a rule that would advance both pieces of legislation at the same time, and later indicated that the rule could tie in voting rights legislation as well. The plan has been endorsed by the White House.
“The House will proceed with a rule allowing us to advance the budget resolution, the bipartisan infrastructure bill and HR4 [on voting rights] so that we may make progress toward the bold vision Democrats share,” Pelosi said in a letter to lawmakers on Thursday after a meeting with Biden.
On Saturday evening, Pelosi wrote to colleagues pledging to pass both bills by October 1.
“Any delay to passing the budget resolution threatens the timetable for delivering the historic progress and the transformative vision that Democrats share,” Pelosi added.
But as of Friday, none of the Democratic moderate House members who previously raised concerns had indicated they were satisfied with Pelosi’s workaround, raising the possibility of a stand-off this week.